AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 106

[ Southeast Asia Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Session 106: Unconventional Windows into Life in Southern Vietnam from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Centuries

Organizer: Claudine T. Ang, Yale-NUS College, Singapore

Discussant: Keith Weller Taylor, Cornell University, USA

Mainstream Vietnamese historical narratives, following official chronicles, often treat the Vietnamese expansion into the Mekong Delta as if it were a smooth passage to the beckoning south; the actual historical process, however, was bloody and uncertain. With few exceptions, conventional sources tell us little about the social history of the migrant Vietnamese themselves, and virtually nothing about the non-Vietnamese with whom they came into contact and conflict. Fortunately, some sources exist that illuminate a fuller picture. This panel draws together four papers that, through their examination of little used sources and unconventional perspectives, reveal hitherto hidden stories and experiences of life in this region from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Nola Cooke uses published and unpublished later seventeenth-century French missionary archival documents to explore how the militarization of society impacted the lives of thousands of Cochinchinese women at the time; Claudine Ang presents a close reading of a Nom play from the mid-eighteenth century to show how comedy was deployed both to help govern the frontier region of Quang Ngai and to encourage Viet newcomers to fight local “barbarians”; Shawn McHale uses chronicles, missionary publications, and archival documents to investigate Khmer-Vietnamese antagonisms in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; finally, analysing several historically invaluable Cam manuscripts, Effendy Mohammed draws our attention to the ways in which Cam people experienced the Vietnamese southward expansion. Keith Taylor will act as discussant on this panel.

Militarization and Women's Lives in later Seventeenth-Century Nguyen Cochinchina: Insights from French Missionary Sources
Nola Cooke, Australian National University, Australia

We know little in detail of Vietnamese social life in later seventeenth-century Cochinchina. As virtually no extant indigenous sources remain for this era, historians have relied largely on travelers’ accounts or a handful of edited missionary publications. One largely untapped set of primary sources does exist, however, that can illuminate aspects of everyday life and social history—the post-1660s reports and correspondence generated by French priests of the Société des Missions-Etrangères de Paris (Foreign Missions Society of Paris). The MEP archives contain a treasury of raw material compiled by several men with long experience at all levels of Nguyen society, from the grass-roots to the court, whose observations went unedited and direct to confreres, relatives, and others. Nevertheless, this cache of primary material, along with Vachet’s early eighteenth-century published account of Cochinchina, remain underutilized by historians. My paper uses these eyewitness sources to explore certain shared—but hitherto invisible—life experiences of thousands of women at the time. It discusses the Nguyen military system and the militarization of seventeenth-century society from the 1630s, after open warfare had began with the north. It analyzes how this military system harnessed the dominant local gender construct to co-opt the unpaid labor of tens of thousands of soldiers’ wives and assesses the military value of their previously unrecognized input for the successful Nguyen war effort. It concludes with a discussion of the fate as prostitutes that MEP sources indicate would have befallen a considerable number of these women in the 1670s, 1680s, and 1690s.

“A Monk; A Nun”: A Lascivious Conversation about Religion, Governance, and Smiting Barbarians in Eighteenth Century Vietnam
Claudine T. Ang, Yale-NUS College, Singapore

The pithy entries in the royal chronicles published in the nineteenth century provide an important source of information on the history of eighteenth century Vietnam. Occasionally, other sources exist that allow us to significantly enlarge our knowledge of otherwise terse and impersonal details of history. My presentation is about one such historical record and an accompanying literary work that survives. The chroniclers recorded that in the year 1750, Nguyen Cu Trinh, an important scholar-official in Dang Trong, was sent to the frontier prefecture of Quang Ngai to solve problems of village bullies, corrupt officials, and repeated attacks by “stone-wall barbarians”. We know from other sources that in his capacity as governor, Nguyen Cu Trinh wrote a poem, Sai Vai (A Monk; A Nun), which was probably staged as a play, to encourage the people to resist the barbarians. Fortunately, this great literary work, which was written in the Vietnamese vernacular “chu Nom”, remains in existence today. The play offers a witty dialogue between a monk and a nun, in which the monk’s attempts to seduce the nun alternate with his dismissal of her as a fool. Beneath the surface, however, the play is Nguyen Cu Trinh’s critique of contemporary religious practices and local forms of governance. In this paper, I will present my translation and analysis of this Nom play and discuss how humor was used in governing the frontier and rallying people towards causes in which the central government was invested.

Rethinking Spatiality, Sovereignty, and Ethnic Conflict on the Mekong Delta Frontier
Shawn F. McHale, George Washington University, USA

Why do Cambodians evince such animosity for Vietnamese today? Conventional explanations for contemporary antagonism between Khmer and Vietnamese tend to fall back on what we can call a “primordial hatreds” argument. In this view, Cambodian animosity to the Vietnamese is rooted in Vietnam’s expansion into the Mekong delta, annexation of part of Cambodia under Ming Mang, and mistreatment of ethnic Cambodians from the late seventeenth century onwards. While there is some truth to this argument, it is often presented in such a schematic fashion as to be useless. This paper will argue for the foundational significance for later ethnic antagonisms of the struggle for the lower Mekong delta in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It will argue against applying modern understandings of sovereignty and spatiality that characterize narratives of Vietnamese aggression and occupation; instead, it will argue that conflicting Khmer, Siamese, and Vietnamese claims to parts of the delta were still alive when the French arrived in the mid-nineteenth century. The French annexation of the lower Mekong delta, and the creation of a “superspace” of French Indochina, put the contest between Vietnamese and Khmer sovereignty claims on hold until the First Indochina War (1945-54), when they were unilaterally “resolved” by France in favor of Vietnam.

Methods of Vilification: Cam perceptions of the enemy or “masuh” in historical perspective
Mohamed Effendy, University of Hawaii, Manoa, Singapore

The Vietnamese chronicle Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu records that on March 22, 1471 A.D., King Le Thanh Tong entered the Cam capital Cha-ban (Vijaya), which had collapsed after a four-day siege. More than 30,000 Cams were captured, including King Tra Toan and his family members, and over 40,000 Cam soldiers were killed. The defeated Cam conducted sporadic and ineffectual resistance until the nineteenth century, when Emperor Minh Mang executed the last Cam king. “Masuh” or enemy is one of the terms often used by the Cam in their manuscripts to describe the Vietnamese people; other terms include “Patao Jek” (evil Vietnamese king), “Anak Yun” (the Vietnamese people) and “baol jek” (evil Vietnamese army). In light of the tumultuous history of the Cam with the Vietnamese, my presentation attempts to understand the Cam perspective of the Vietnamese contained in the Cam manuscripts. The main questions I seek answers to are: How were the Vietnamese portrayed and why? When did such perceptions develop? Historical Cam perceptions of the Vietnamese have rarely been studied, largely because of the inaccessibility of indigenous Cam sources. In presenting my research on Cam perspectives of political events that have typically been understood through Vietnamese portrayals, I highlight the existence of several Cam manuscripts that I am currently analyzing for my PhD dissertation.